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Apr 12, 2010

A few words about Russian jets

The crash of a Polish government Tupolev TU-154 at Smolensk on Saturday, which killed the country's president Lech Kaczynski and all of the other 95 people on board has brought out

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A Wikipedia image of a TU-154
A Wikipedia image of a TU-154

The crash of a Polish government Tupolev TU-154 at Smolensk on Saturday, which killed the country’s president Lech Kaczynski and all of the other 95 people on board has brought out the usual cliches about Russian airliners.

That is, they are inherently unsafe and badly designed.

These claims are not entirely correct. The problem with Russian jets is much more about how badly they are flown than design limitations, and there has never been an airliner built that doesn’t come with a set of handling issues that are addressed by how they are flown by properly trained pilots.

The Soviet and post Soviet era Russian airliner industry never delivered a mass produced subsonic jet as lethal as the Sud Aviation Caravelle although some of them could be compared to the MD-11, the DC-10 successor which one retired FAA official later admitted should never have been granted certification in its original form.

The Caravelle had two characteristics. It was delightful to fly in, and it was deadly. It was a difficult jet for piston era pilots to get used to, as was for a while, the early Boeing 727-100s, a jet the Tupolev design bureau unsuccessfully sought to emulate and surpass with the TU-154. It would be tempting to compare the TU-154 to the British Trident series of tri-jets rather than the ultimately very successful 727 series, as the Tridents also suffered from poor customer airlines and quirky operational features.

Russian airliners have never gained traction among western airlines. They were generally heavier for a given task than an American or modern European airliner, but they were supremely well built to cope with the bitter cold of Siberian operations. The Russian industry, to this day, has never shown any sign of comprehending customer support, the supply of spare parts, or the need for detailed monitoring of issues related to aged airframes, or so western aviation authorities have so advised the technical aviation media for decades past.

No-one yet knows what caused the crash. It is not inconceivable that something mechanically vital failed at the wrong moment, and that the early reports pointing to pilot error are despite being plausible completely wrong.

What is reported however is that the flight made three orbits about the fog bound airport and then crashed in almost zero visibility some distance from the end of the runway on its attempt at landing.

Any reading of the archives on accidents in Russian to Russian airliners since 1956, when Russian TU-104 jets began the post Comet jet age with scheduled deportation flights to Siberian prison camps will suggest that the flying culture has remained stuck in the same state that it was right up to the early 70s in western carriers.

Accounts of Russian jet crashes these days, whether in Boeings, Airbuses or older Tupolevs and Ilyushins often read like accounts of disasters involving British European Airlines or DAN-Air in the 60s and 70s. That is, the pilots pressed on regardless, uncertain as to where they were, or because they believed too much in their personal capabilities. Modern airline practice is not about pilots pressing on, but about rules that set strict minima on such issues as visibility and fuel reserves. If the conditions set out in the operating procedures are not met the jet flies away to a pre-planned alternative airport. No going down below minimums to have a look, or any other heroics.

This was a crash by a Polish VIP flight in an old Russian jet. Whether the flight was destroyed by poor judgement or something else remains to be established.

Russian media image of the crash scene showing the rear end of the fuselage
Russian media image of the crash scene showing the rear end of the fuselage
Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.

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60 comments

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60 thoughts on “A few words about Russian jets

  1. Bill Parker

    The first time I ever visited Australia I flew from London in 1. A Tupolev 154 and 2. An Ilyushin 62M. ( and then 747 ex Singapore) Both Russian planes were owned by Czech Airlines as was in the 70s. On both flights I was able to see up close what shape they were in externally when alighting. Both were filthy and the Ilyushin had a visible oil leak under one wing.

    I wondered if we would make it from Prague to Singapore in that Ilyushin! The fact that it had a big red “OK” on the tail must have meant something.

  2. chrisbob

    Hi,

    What do you think of this aviation sites claim about the TU-154 safety?

    http://www.flightlevel350.com/Tupolev_TU-154_aircraft_facts.html

    “Statistically, the Tu-154 has one of the poorest safety records.”

    Are the TU’s well designed and well constructed machines?

  3. Ben Sandilands

    Chrisbob,

    Interesting site. It makes much the same point as Russian aviation analysts and which I agree with, in that:

    QUOTE.Statistically, the Tu-154 has one of the poorest safety records. However, Tupolev 154’s chequered safety record owes more to errors than technical problems.UNQUOTE.

    And it is built like the proverbial brick outhouse in terms of field performance.

    I flew on a LOT Polish Airlines TU-154 from Warsaw to Frankfurt in 1992. I thought the cabin was fairly comfortable apart from the fact that part of the insulation under the window was missing, and my trouser leg began to stick to the cold metal in consequence before I carefully peeled it away.

    Could the flight have been the same jet ex-LOT? Maybe.

  4. green-orange

    I don’t no of any airplane that’s able to fly through trees !

  5. Bob A

    Ben, thanks for the Ignorant stereotypes.

    Statistically, Tu-154 is safer than most Western aircraft.

    E.g, Tu-154 had only 28 crashes – less than Boeing 737 – and few were due to technical failure.

    Here’s from Wiki:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tupolev_Tu-154

    <>

  6. chrisbob

    I had an old mercedes once that leaked oil and was in the worst of shape, though that would be an operator issue.

    It appears that the TU-154 is an excellent machine for its time, a brick outhouse as you say, typical of Russian thinking when it comes to essentials. Their consumer goods usually suck but just look at Lada Nivas which were required for the military.

    My uncle once flew to somewhere in the USSR and the plane was standing room only. Years ago a Russian passenger plane crashed because the pilot turned the autopilot off and handed controls to his son. Operators.

    Is it just me or did Putin appear ready to crack some tears??

  7. Bob A

    “…My uncle once flew to somewhere in the USSR and the plane was standing room only…”

    – Very funny, Rodney Dangerfield! There were NO such planes – ever. Your uncle had few too many vodkas.

    “…Years ago a Russian passenger plane crashed because the pilot turned the autopilot off and handed controls to his son. Operators…”

    – Wasn’t like this at all. It was an iundocumented feature of the Airbus computer, which lead to worldwide changes to pilot training. The Russian pilots were unlucky.

  8. Bob A

    And no – Lada Nivas were NOT “required for the military”! Ladas are 100% civilian, they’re NOT used by the Russian military.

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